Saturday, March 5, 2011


Here's what I thought was an interesting and unusual study of narrative. The research and innovation arm of the Department of Defense is examining "the role stories play in a security context." Established in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has as its mission "to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military." Here, technological superiority has to do not only with weapons systems, but with the scientific understanding of narrative. 

Just last week, DARPA had a one-day workshop called "Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts." In the workshop announcement, DARPA says, "Stories exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that these influences make stories highly relevant to vexing security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution. Therefore, understanding the role stories play in a security context is a matter of great import and some urgency."

The workshop had three goals. First, to survey "narrative theories" on what a story is, what its moving parts are, and what makes a story a story rather than something else. Second, "to understand the role of narrative in security context," by asking such questions as what role stories play in political violence, how they serve political radicalization, and what role they play in the actions of bystanders to political violence. Finally, the workshop sought to "survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools"; that is, to examine what approaches and tools can be used for "the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people."

On this blog, I've looked at many organizations that use stories to support Alzheimer's patients, human rights organizing, community-building, and other efforts. Many of them would agree with DARPA about the "powerful influence" that stories exert. One of the features that distinguishes DARPA's work -- aside from its aims -- is its scientific approach to the study of narrative. So much of what we know about stories in the public realm is either self-evident (we know from our own experience how much we think and act in terms of stories), or anecdotal (as when someone talks about how a certain book or film changed their life, or the the relief and gratitude they felt upon sharing their story in therapy or during an oral history interview). But by seeking to deconstruct and quantify stories and their impact, DARPA is taking what, to me anyway, is a uniquely rigorous approach -- one that will be of use to the Department of Defense in "security contexts," as well as to storytellers in more ordinary situations like filmmaking or walking tours. I'll keep you posted.

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